Red Lines

10.15.12

Is Israel Leading The U.S. Into War?

Is Israel leading the U.S. into war? A retired top former Israeli general seems to think that perception could, if the U.S. goes to war with Iran, do damage to the Israeli-American relationship. "What I am mainly concerned of is a scenario where the United states is dragged into a war with Iran and the perception in the United States is that Israel dragged it into this war," said Israeli Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom at a Friday event at the Center For American Progress (where I used to work) in Washington.

It's hard not to see why Americans might have this perception: for months now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a very public campaign to push the U.S. to shift its trigger for war on Iran to a nuclear weapon "capability." Capability is ill-defined, but this much seems clear: it is a lower threshold for war than Iranian weapons production, where the Obama administration has its red line.

In an earlier comment, Brom seemed to suggest that such an American perception could be appropriate: "Israel has a limited capability in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program in the sense that it can only delay it," he said. "The most important measure for the success of an Israeli military strike is if it is succeeding in drawing the U.S. into the fight."

Brom, for his part, didn't seem to think the public debate about red lines—nor red lines at all—were very productive. "Basically, I oppose red lines," he said, remarking that red lines invite provocations at their margins and, furthermore, must be flexible as circumstances change. 

Michael Singh, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), took a more hawkish position on red lines than the Israelis on stage. "You need to be clear with yourself about your red lines are," he said, emphasizing that talks between Israel and the U.S. on the matter should be private. 

Of course, these talks are far from private. Netanyahu used his U.N. speech to seeminly admonish the Obama administration for not having adopted his own red lines. Likewise, the Romney campaign has solidified its position in line with that of the Israeli government—feeding the perception that by publicly flogging his ask, Netanyahu is interfering in U.S. elections. And American officials—notably top military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey—have publicly commented about Israeli-American relations with regard to Iran as well.

Perhaps the most stark contrast between Singh and the Israelis on stage came on a final deal with Iran. The other Israeli analyst, the Iranian-born Meir Javedanfar, said the sanctions were working and needed more time. Both Jafedanfar and Brom thought the pressure should be used to extract a deal from Iran. Though they differed on how exactly to get there, both agreed that a final deal that allowed Iran's leaders to "save face"—by having a limited amount of closely monitored nuclear enrichment, which Iran states is its right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"In Israel, there is a word that is used, bitachon, that means 'security.' Bitachon bitachon bitachon," said Javedanfar. "In Iran, there is a word that is used, haq—this is 'our right.' Haq haq haq. So we have to reach a point where Iran has its haq and Israel has its bitachon."

Singh demurred: "I think it's bad policy to allow Iranian enrichment," he said. "Frankly, I don't see why we should trust Iran with any enrichment program, and I don't see why Iran needs an enrichment program either." This, of course, is demanding total capitulation from Iran with regard to what it regards as a right (which may be disputable, but Iran asserts nonetheless). That's a recipe for no deal, which, in turn, can only lead further down the road to confrontation.

What Iran needs is beside the point; what it wants is to bolster its image as a power in the region through defiance of the West. Advocates for hardline positions like Singh would do well to listen to their Israeli colleagues, who understand that Israel's image may be at stake too.